Simsbury Facing 'Big' Problem: The Office Complex Left Behind

The Hartford's sprawling campus at 200 Hopmeadow St. in Simsbury is up for sale. (RICK HARTFORD)

This fall, the town, in conjunction with The Hartford, researched possible uses for the property and came up with a myriad of options that could mix bioscience research, technology or higher education with a strong component of housing, possibly mixing single-family houses, condominiums and apartments. Housing would be paired with shops, restaurants and other services.

One option would return some of the property to farmland for growing and harvesting fruits and vegetables.

Peck said the redevelopment essentially would create a new section of town. Housing options would encourage workers to live in the same neighborhood so they could walk to work.

The vision is far-reaching and would likely require a master developer, Peck said. New zoning regulations are being written, and development would likely take a decade or more. The wild card is the economy, and uneven job growth could further stretch out the timetable.

John M. McCormick, executive vice president at commercial real estate services firm CBRE/NE in Hartford, hired by the insurer to market the property, said there has been early interest in it. He declined to identify the parties.

McCormick said the redevelopment of a portion of the Cigna campus in Bloomfield serves as one model. In 2003, the Emhart building, or North Building, was demolished and in the years that followed apartments, single-family houses, a golf course and shops rose on the site. Retailers are a mix of national chains and local independent operators, he said.

Studies by a consultant hired by the town — part of a "charette" — shows Simsbury has similar potential, McCormick said. In addition, the office building is easily divided for smaller tenants, he said.

"This is an underdeveloped site that has all sort of attributes that could provide live, work and play opportunities," McCormick said.

'Urban Vibe In The 'Burbs'

Nationally, complexes like The Hartford's are increasingly being reimagined as "small cities," said James Hughes, dean of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University.

"You make it multi-use by surrounding it with other uses," Hughes said. "What you're trying to do is create an urban vibe in the suburbs."

One recent example, Hughes said, is in Bridgewater, N.J., where a 1.2-million-square-foot office and research park formerly occupied the Sanofi, the French pharmaceutical giant was purchased by a developer. The developer wants to create a hotel, retail, restaurant and possibly, apartments.

In Connecticut, the redevelopment of the former Union Carbide headquarters in Danbury took a similar course. The new owners of the 1.2 million-square-foot building, designed with pods to resemble a molecule, have invested $20 million into the structure since buying it for $74 million in 2009.

Aaron Smiles, director of corporate leasing for the owner, Matrix Realty Group, based in Long Island, N.Y., said the complex — vacated by Union Carbide after it was purchased by Dow Chemical in 2001 — already had two major tenants when Matrix purchased the property: pharmaceutical company Boehringer Ingelheim and Praxair, a former Union Carbide division.

Those tenants, still anchors, accounted for 45 percent of the complex, a plus, but there had been little investment in the property by two owners that followed Union Carbide.

"You stepped into the building, and you were right back at Union Carbide," Smiles said. "Nothing had been done. We started ripping everything up."

In four years, Smiles said, the building is now 75 percent occupied, accommodating tenants who need as little a couple hundred square feet to tenants of 100,000 square feet.

"We act as an incubator for large companies as well as small companies," Smiles said. "This is now our flagship building."

Key to the makeover has been the addition of amenities: a 10,000-square-foot fitness center, child-care center with outdoor playground, a massage therapist, a bank, a hair salon, a Starbucks and a nail salon. The building also has been promoted for use for conferences and wedding.

"It's a little city," Smiles said. "It's absolutely a little city."

How quickly such a redevelopment would be embraced by Simsbury remains to be seen. Several years ago, residents turned out in force to oppose big-box retail development just down the road on Hopmeadow Street.

Hughes said redevelopment of sites such as the one in Simsbury can be jarring, at least at first, for town residents.

"You're talking about intensifying the use," Hughes said. "It's not the quiet facility surrounded by grass and trees anymore."

An early version of this story mistakenly reported the annual tax payment on The Hartford's Simsbury property. The assessed value is $44 million. The annual tax payment is $1.6 million.